Travel tip #192…Mingle with spirits

In a sad twist of fate, I stopped drinking bourbon the day before visiting a historic distillery in Kentucky. In all honesty, I had only started the night before that.

90% of the world’s bourbon is produced in Kentucky. Aged at least four years in oak barrels, the distilled spirit can only earn its name if it’s made from at least 51% corn.

I am told there are four cobs of corn in every shot of bourbon and some folks claim it as their daily intake of vegetables.

There are more aging barrels of bourbon in Kentucky than there are citizens in the state.

Two things were never attacked in the civil war….hospitals and distilleries. Sorta helps you understand priorities.

You’d have to look hard to find someone who knew less about bourbon before I was dipped into the wellspring of production. I toured two distilleries, sat in one of the world’s most celebrated bourbon bars and soaked in the history and craft of this authentically American whiskey, if not the product itself.

The Kentucky Bourbon Trail winds you through eight celebrated distilleries. (Not all the state’s gems are on the trail.) It should go without saying…but I’ll say it anyway…if you plan to make several stops along these narrow, twisting roads…think it through. You don’t want your sampling to impede your driving, and vice versa.

My first stop was at Woodford Reserve in Versailles. We walked through the process from start to finish and wound up in the sample room. You can choose from a half dozen different tours. I only had time for the 1-hour intro.

If I understood things correctly, back in the day, a handful of bourbon big wigs made their way to Washington, DC to lobby for specific rules dictating what could and could not be sold as bourbon. It was a way to protect the industry and firm up their lock on production. But those same folks who were happy for federal help in that regard were less enthusiastic about oversight and taxation by those same feds.

Woodford Reserve, like many, had a government shack built right outside their warehouse doors to watch and tax each barrel that left. But legend has it the government boys were offered as much liquid refreshment as they liked…and the shack was built without a bathroom. So I suspect when trips into the woods were made, a few barrels might have sneaked out the door unrecorded.

Of course, there was a little pause in production from 1920–1933 thanks to some American puritans who passed the 18th Amendment. It wasn’t a popular law and the 21st Amendment repealed the 18th and the citizens rejoiced. I question whether Prohibition ended because our leaders thought it was good policy, or because they welcomed the significant tax revenue in the shadow of the Great Depression.

Just four distilleries were licensed to produce during Prohibition for…um….er….medicinal purposes. A subjective term I suspect was bent, depending on who the “ill” were and what “ailment” needed curing.

Buffalo Trace in Frankfort was one of the four that continued through our national experiment and they’ve been producing bourbon for more than 200 years. Their 6 millionth barrel of bourbon is aging on the property and will be bottled and auctioned off for charity when it’s ripe.

I’m told that each year that bourbon ages, about 3-4% is lost through the barrel and into the heavens. It’s called the angel’s share, and as you walk through the historic warehouses, between tall racks of barrels, you breathe in that angel’s share…the rich and oaky scent seeped into the wood floors and stone walls through the centuries.

It was a conference in Covington, Kentucky that brought me to the area. Just south of Cincinnati, across the Ohio River, Covington is a vibrant food and arts community filled with historic buildings and charm. It’s also home to the Old Kentucky Bourbon Bar, a relaxed little place conveniently located three blocks from where I stayed.

Josh was behind the counter the night I stopped in. And he was more than happy to pour you a bourbon or simply talk about it. Josh could have talked me under the table, but my lack on knowledge didn’t earn me any scorn. He loved the lore and was happy to share it. In fact, most everyone at the bar shared the same passion and their knowledge flowed freely. On a row of 12 stools, I was invited into 4 different conversations to learn why people came to this place and loved to grease their wheels with this corn-based lubricant. It seemed the warm glow of the place came from the lights, the people, and the spirits.

As they say in the old Kentucky proverb…Keep your friends close and your bourbon closer.

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